“Does it feel like everyone in your church is getting more liberal?”
Someone posed this question at a recent get-together of evangelical pastors that I attended in the Nashville area. The person raising it had recently discovered that most of the young women in his congregation were not onboard with the church’s complementarian convictions.
Just a few minutes prior, I’d spoken with some of the pastors about a young man with a bad habit of attending services for several weeks, deciding something said or done exposed the church as “liberal,” then moving on to the next congregation. (Mine was one of them.)
“I think many of the women in our churches are getting more liberal,” I said. “But I think the men are getting more conservative.”
An array of empirical data provides evidence of this growing trend. Generations, the new book by San Diego State University professor of psychology Jean Twenge, demonstrates that among high school seniors, 30 percent of young women identify as conservative—down more than 10 percent in the last decade. Meanwhile, the number of young men who identify as conservative is more than double: an all-time high of 65 percent.
Lyman Stone and Brad Wilcox note in The Atlantic that the share of young single women identifying as liberal nearly doubles that of young single men, and the share of young single men identifying as conservative doubles that of young single women.
We can expect the same trends in the church. Even back in 2014, Pew’s “Religious Landscape Study” revealed that, while Christians were overwhelmingly politically conservative, there was an 18-point percentage gap between liberal Christian women and liberal Christian men. One could fairly assume that gap has grown in the last decade, as it has among the general population.
As I watch Christians debate this growing fissure, I often hear two knee-jerk reactions. Some see a discipleship problem among women.
“The problem,” they say, “is that our women are being co-opted by progressive podcasters and social media influencers. They’re caught in the liberal drift. They need to be discipled into a more conservative position.”
Others see a discipleship problem among men: “All these young guys are being discipled more by Jordan Peterson than Jesus. They need to listen to those on the margins and move to a more progressive political position.”
Both responses are shortsighted. Neither one digs below the surface. And each will alienate one sex or the other. Rather than rushing to quick reactions, we need to make space for reflection. What is it that men and women are looking for (and apparently finding) in their political parties? What leads them to identify so deeply with a movement outside the church that it threatens their identification with others inside it?
The answer, I think, might be simpler than we expect.
In recent years, the Left’s message to women in America has been loud and clear: We want you. You belong here. You have a home here. You are welcome here. You are not part of the problem. But the same movement has often said to men—particularly white, heterosexual, Christian men: You are the problem. Men are oppressors. They’re abusers. They’re not to be trusted.
On the flip side, conservatives in America have played to men’s sense of victimization by telling them: We still need you. You still have a role to play. You are wanted. You are welcome here. You are not part of the problem. But the same movement elected as its standard bearer a male president who unashamedly boasted about sexually assaulting women. You are the problem, conservatism has often told women. You are not to be trusted.
As a pastor, I’m primarily concerned with the local church. How can I and others lead wisely as our congregations experience this politically induced divide between men and women?
Theologically speaking, we need a healthy dose of “the doctrine on which the church stands and falls.” In Galatians 2, Paul recounts how he opposed Peter for practicing justification by works. If we divide over political preference, we’re doing just the same. And like Peter, we stand condemned.
No person is justified by works of the law—and that includes political preference. We are justified by grace through faith in Christ and have no right to build barriers between people and God, or people and the church, based on their voting records.
Practically speaking, church leaders need to model healthy friendship across genders. Yes, boundaries matter, and each person needs to follow their Spirit-led convictions. But male-female friendships are essential to healthy communities.
Cross-gender relationships have an undeniable presence in the Bible, in church history, and in any thriving culture. Modeling charitable, gracious, and, yes, wise friendship across the gender boundary is a helpful way to foster unity in the local church.
But perhaps there’s nothing we need to take more urgently from this moment than the truth that people want to be wanted. It’s a judgment on our political era that so many people feel one of the two major parties has told them, You are not welcome here. Shame on our churches if half the population hears the same from us!
If we treat the leftward drift of women as the problem, we’ll only puff up the pride of some and push out others. If we treat the rightward drift of men as the problem, we’ll only puff up the pride of some and push out others.
But if we model the love of Jesus Christ, who gave himself for the sins of “the whole world” (1 John 2:2), including men and women, the Left and the Right, our words and actions will say loud and clear, You are not a problem here. You are welcome. You are wanted. You are loved. Let’s follow Jesus together.
Taylor Combs serves as lead pastor of King’s Cross Church in East Nashville, TN.